Last week the NY Times blog asked a bunch of public gay figures to talk about the films that changed their lives. We’ve watched a bunch of the films mentioned by the people they interviewed (14 of the 16 were men, by the way, and even though where are a bunch of men I love on the list, like Colman Domingo, Justin Vivian Bond, John Cameron Mitchell and Cheyenne Jackson…..come the eff on, Erik Piepenburg. Actress Lea DeLaria even mentions feeling like most movies about lesbians portray them unrealistically, and she’s sick of playing PE teachers and police lieutenants, and you didn’t feel like it might be helpful to include more women who could recommend movies that might help the rest of us? Hmph).
They only got to pick one, but I was trying to remember the first movie about gay people that I ever saw (I think it was Philadelphia) and tracing my awareness of being queer in terms of identifying with LGBT folks in TV and the movies. I’ve always learned a lot about relationships and how to behave by observing other people, and through a gradually accumulating sense that “Hey, that’s me too” I was doing more than relating to people in the gay community, I was recognizing myself as a part of it.
In high school I saw Hairspray, Baz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet and the Rocky Horror Picture Show which, while not making a statement about the gay community per se, definitely featured enough queerness and gender-bending and cross-dressing to make me sit up and pay attention. “Not everybody plays by the same rules,” I learned from Divine, Mercutio in drag, and really everything that happens after the Time Warp. I had a handful of gay friends, and I knew that boy-crazy as I was, I was attracted to girls too (but thought that since I wasn’t gay gay, maybe I didn’t need to tell anyone).
In college I was introduced to Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Saved, Paris is Burning, Short Bus, Kissing Jessica Stein, The Vagina Monologues, All About My Mother, Shortbus, Velvet Goldmine, Rent, Boy from Oz, and most significantly of all, Torch Song Trilogy. I watched babyfaced Harvey Fierstein and babier-faced Matthew Broderick and was like…..damn. I was struck by the power of the humor and style and tragedy of it, and even though it’s not stated as autobiography, it feels true. Arnold’s life is specific. I watched it, I rewatched it with the commentary, and I watched it again immediately afterwards. It’s playing in the background right now. Torch Song Trilogy is complex and funny and romantic and layered and worthy of being told. Not that Philadelphia didn’t have a love story too, but it was more of an education about AIDS than about gay relationships for me. The only public example of bisexuality I was aware of was Tila Tequila which was Extremely Depressing. It’s a lot easier to be out and proud when you can look up to someone like Ellen DeGeneres.
When I graduated and moved to New York, my gay roommate introduced me to her impressive collection of camp and classic gay cinema, from Victor Victoria to Were the World Mine. It wasn’t until I moved to Brooklyn, and started watching Queer as Folk on DVD, that I finally felt like I needed to–or could–start acknowledging my sexual identity. i.e. date girls. I know that Queer as Folk is to some members of gay community what Sex and the City is to some feminists….as well as the gay community…but it gave me distinct, three-dimensional frames of reference for gay relationships that went beyond stereotype, that were not peripheral, that featured love, sex, family, disfunction and community. It’s not like I didn’t know plenty of gay men and women and couples in real life by now, but prying into their personal lives and being super voyeuristic for my own analytical purposes wasn’t as easy as just ordering the next disc of the series from Netflix. The only lesbian relationship on the show was portrayed as mostly strong and loving (…if annoying and occasionally boring), but there were clear divisions between the male gay community and the female gay community. I hoped The L Word would balance things out but found it really hard to get into, largely because it didn’t make me laugh and nobody in it was as adorable as Hal Sparks.
The continuing frustration for me as a bisexual person is that if movies and TV portray bisexuality at all, it’s usually part of an identity crisis. When someone’s afraid they’re not straight, for a while they cling to being bisexual before finally admitting they’re gay. And that is representative of some people’s experience, and that’s fine. But I’m not gay. I’m not straight. I’m not “curious”. I don’t need a label but for the purposes of community I would like one that’s not so fraught with skepticism or disdain.
That’s why it’s so important to me that queer people should tell their own stories, specific and nonfictional, because no single narrative should have to represent all queer people–because it can’t possibly do it. I liked “The Kids Are All Right”–it didn’t feel generic to me, but one of my queer friends hated it because she felt it was. Another queer friend felt the same way about “Kissing Jessica Stein.” But sometimes? Women date women and then date men and then date women and then date men and it doesn’t have to be representative of the way all queer people live. This is why we need a TON of narratives, so that when people tell their stories, they don’t have to bear the weight of telling everyone’s story. Today I am grateful for David Bowie, Lady Gaga, Cynthia Nixon, Anna Paquin and Gillian Anderson.
Thus far my favorite bisexual character on TV is Heather Morris’ Brittany on Glee, partly because she’s such a character; Santana is an even stronger person but the writers seem to be pushing her towards self-identifying as a lesbian, someone whose sexual relationships with men were self-deception or over-compensation and not just….the relationships she had with men prior to her relationship with Brittany.
This week in my Queer Film class we watched “She Must Be Seeing Things,” which both represented and responded to bi-phobia in the lesbian community. Not every gay woman feels/articulates this mistrust, but it’s definitely a real thing I’ve encountered as a queer woman with a dude-heavy dating resume. The main character, Agatha is dating Jo, a woman who has had a lot of relationships with men prior to this current same-sex relationship. After spying and discovering Jo’s former promiscuity Agatha makes herself crazy with jealousy, fearful that Jo is going to cheat on her (and in her paranoid fantasies, it’s always with a man). She’s sitting with a friend who says “What did you expect, getting involved with a woman whose prior relationships have all been with men,” which got my hackles up until Agatha responded “It’s not about that. You’re dating a woman, and you get jealous of other women. I know I’m gay, I love her and she loves me.”
I loved when Cynthia Nixon said that for her, being in a gay relationship was a choice. She wasn’t saying that experiencing attraction is a choice, but that acting on it certainly is. Now if she would just write a triptych of plays. . .